Extolling drugs and liquor

BY BHARAT DOGRA| IN Opinion | 10/06/2016
While the debate over Udta Punjab rumbles on, what about the Punjabi songs that glorify drugs and alcohol in popular culture?
BHARAT DOGRA says they are dangerous

 Still from Punjabi song 'Chitta' (local slang for Cocaine) by singer Veet Baljit               

While Abhishek Chaubey’s film Udta Punjab is at the centre of a storm owing to its depiction of the drugs epidemic in Punjab, there is a wider issue that has been neglected – the Punjabi (and Bhojpuri) songs that sing of the pleasures of alcohol and drug and that saturate the media and popular culture.

The normal tendency in a healthy democracy should be to avoid as much as possible any censorship or curbs on freedom of expression. While fully accepting and supporting this basic principle, shouldn’t questions be raised when one sees songs and videos openly celebrating drugs, liquor and molestation?

One wouldn’t worry too much if such songs and videos remained at the margins but when these become centrestage to the point of becoming an integral part of popular culture and occupying prime-time space on TV, then it is time to get concerned.

This question is not raised from a prudish or moralistic viewpoint. I have no objection to the depiction of sex and sexual issues in the media but only to the more specific issue of drug and liquor addiction and sexual harassment actually being promoted by songs and videos. This may be happening to an alarming extent in some of the regional media where violations of ethical norms are easier. 

My argument is located in the context of Punjabi and Bhojpuri songs, two languages which are easily understood over wide parts of India which means that music programmes in these languages can influence a very large number of people.

What is common to both these languages is the very rich heritage of folk music which has also made an important contribution to Hindi film music in the form of melodious and memorable songs. Unfortunately, this rich heritage has been left behind by some of the more recent entrants who have shown scant regard for any ethical norms.

Let me first take up some of the Punjabi songs. One song which occupied prime time space on TV for a long time repeatedly features a single line in which the singer says  that consumption of four bottles of vodka is a daily must - chaar bottle vodka kaam mere rojkaa. This is repeated time and again in a setting that comprises glamorous women in various stages of undress living it up with the singer.

When this kind of  song, part Hindi part Punjabi (and hence able to go beyond a strictly Punjabi audience) is repeated for several months on prime time programmes, the cumulative effect is to build up certain notions of what constitutes a desirable life in the minds of impressionable youth. In the past, singers of such songs have faced well-deserved flak in the past for glamorizing rape, though they have usually wriggled out of taking responsibility by claiming that they had been misunderstood.

It is widely known that Punjab has faced a very serious drug and liquor addiction problem for decades.  The youth in particular have been devastated by drug addiction on a large scale and efforts to tackle this problem are now being urgently explored. Given this context, it is shocking that songs extolling drugs or expressing a yearning for them have become very popular among the young.

One popular song - Saahanchsehek di eydilchdhadak - says, ‘People say you are hooked on to me, you run in this Jat’s blood like drugs’. Another song laments ‘Oh drugs are not coming from across the border and here I have to wait in Ludhiana’ (Onu Akh Vi Laun Ni Dehnda).

A study led by Professor Dheeraj Sharma of the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad that tried to examine closely  the content of songs most popular among Punjab’s youth  revealed that there was a high percentage of them containing varying degrees of references to drugs and violence. Swati Goel Sharma, writing on Scoopwhoop, has also highlighted this problem.

Coming now to Bhojpuri songs, there are two kinds of songs shown repeatedly on TV which occupy an important place in Bhojpuri films and which are particularly relevant to this issue. Firstly, there are some songs in which a youth in the company of other friends makes very vulgar gestures towards a girl that virtually amount to sexual harassment. The girl, accompanied by her friends, first shows mock anger and then  starts dancing with the young man.

This creates the wrong impression that girls are actually happy about such vulgarity and in the end, submit to the man who is harassing them. It can create a strong base for promoting molestation and vulgar behavior.

The other kind of objectionable Bhojpuri song in films and on TV is sung in a setting where a feudal man or gangster asks for a dance performance by a girl. Liquor is shown to be flowing freely and the dancing girl is seen repeatedly serving drinks not just to the gangsters but even to villagers and policemen. Moreover, the men often carry guns and point them towards the dancing girl, towards her navel, in a salacious fashion.   

The mixing up of sex, violence, liquor and other intoxicants in a very attractive setting is the basic theme of such songs and scenes. When these are repeated time and again, they end up having an impact on young minds and can influence attitudes and behaviour towards women.

Of course, one accepts that such dance scenes have been an integral part of our films ever since the film industry began but what is objectionable is this peculiar mélange of  liquor, guns and vulgarity and its endless repetition. 

The right response to this is not more censorship but a better awareness of what these songs and scenes can lead to, in real life and to real people.   


Bharat Dogra is a veteran journalist.


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